The Language of God, by Dr. Francis Collins, is a unique offering. While people like Kenneth Miller have come from a science background and written positively about Christianity and science, I’m not aware of such an offering from someone as prominent as Collins in the scientific community.
First the summary: I really enjoyed the book and I think it is worth reading if you are interested yet uninitiated in evolution or are a Christian who does not agree with the ideas of evolution. The information presented in the book is remarkably clear and approachable. Not what I expected from a leading scientist in a complex field like genetics.
Having said that, the book is not without problems. The book’s subtitle is “a scientist presents evidence for belief”. That is really not very accurate. He presents a good case for what I would call the major theme of the book: that faith and science can coexist in the same worldview. But faith is not really empirical, so there is not much that can be presented in the way of “evidence” for faith. I think that idea is fairly consistent through the book, but some of his summary statements seem to revert back to the “evidence” theme and this is misleading and distracts from the main theme.
One of my favorite points of his is made very early on. On page 5 he makes an astute observation about why science fails to capture the general public’s imagination. The stridency of some of the materialist atheistic proponents of science pushes the general public (most of whom are spiritual in some sense) towards a general mistrust of science. This distancing of the public is what cultivates anti-scientific thinking. Anti-scientific thinking is what allows quacks and charlatans to thrive in our culture, preying on those unfortunate souls who are unknowingly ignorant.
Atheistic materialists “crusading” against faith and religion, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are alienating the very people they need as allies in the fight against scientific ignorance. But these “crusaders” are fundamentalists in their own right and would rather ostracize theists than allow a theist to be an ally in raising scientific awareness. They may claim science is the most important thing, but it’s not – it’s atheism. The kind of atheism that seeks to purge the idea of faith and religion from humanity.
The public sees this, and apparently thinks to reject atheism one must also reject mainstream science. That is why we need people like Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller. These people can show the public that faith and science are not mutually exclusive, though the fundamentalists on both sides of the issue (the Richard Dawkinses on one side and the Ken Hams and Duane Gishes on the other) would vociferously disagree.
When I see the damage done to the public by quacks and charlatans, I must oppose anyone that is damaging the public’s ability to understand science. That damage comes from both atheistic and theistic extremes. The solution can be helped by books like The Language of God.
So now let me mention some specific aspects of the book that I liked and disliked. First the dislikes. Collins does a good job explaining why his atheism failed him. But he does not mention that the casual atheism he “defaulted” to through his younger years was not something he reasoned his way into. So when he mentions the short fallings of his atheism, do not for a second think that those are the short fallings of Richard Dawkins’, Sam Harris’s, Daniel Dennet’s, etc, atheism. Collins’ atheism experience was simplistic in the same way these atheists’ religious experiences were simplistic. These atheists attack a “schoolboy’s” religion (as Collins points out beautifully on page 164) just as Collins decries a “schoolboy’s” atheism.
Collins is a doctor and geneticist. So maybe I shouldn’t bee too hard on his cosmology. But it is problematic and I’m surprised that he went to print with certain conceptions. He is hit or miss in his discussion of the Big Bang. Big Bang cosmology tells us that the universe is expanding and cooling. Conversely it tells us that if we go back in time the universe was more dense and hotter. But Collins takes it back too far saying something to the effect of the universe was a dimensionless point of infinite density (a singularity) that exploded in the Big Bang.
This is cosmological thin ice. There is no consensus on the actual origin of the universe, far from it. The fact that general relativity (GR) predicts a singularity as a “cosmic egg” is taken by most leading cosmologists as evidence that GR is not, in fact, a “universal” theory. Its applicability has certain limitations, just as Newton’s laws of motion and gravity have applicability limitations. The singularity predictions of GR indicate that the two “king” areas in physics general relativity and quantum mechanics (QM), are just “terse” expressions of a “greater” theory when it is applied in specific instances (large-scale situations are described by GR, and amazingly small-scale situations are described by QM). This “greater” theory is sometimes called “Quantum Gravity” and it is the Holy Grail of physics. As I said, the idea of the universe being “born” by a singularity “exploding” just is not widely held. The origin of the universe is a true frontier of knowledge. Little is known, but the search is furious. Many exciting things will be learned in the decades to come!
My other problem with his cosmological discussion of origins is he appears to use our lack of knowledge as “evidence” of God’s creative act (pages 65-71). While he certainly is free to think that, this is the complete opposite of “evidence”, it’s a mere God-of-the-Gaps argument, which I dislike. Oddly enough Collin’s lambastes different God-of-the-Gaps arguments later in his book (pages 91-92). I certainly hope in later writing he will admit that the mystery-of-the-origin-of-the-universe-implies-God discussion is a God-of-the-Gaps argument, and not “evidence”.
Another major problem I have starts on page 71 where he begins discussing the “Anthropic Principle”. In a nutshell he asserts that the constants of our universe (e.g. strong nuclear force, gravitational constant, expansion rate of the universe) appear to be “fine-tuned” to allow, perhaps even compel nature to give rise to life. This is very much a matter of philosophy and not science. It is the “Strong Anthropic Principle” he is discussing, which is very shaky scientific ground. He does not mention the “Weak Anthropic Principle” which is useful from a scientific standpoint. The “weak” principle is well summarized by Stephen Hawking: “…in a universe that is very large or infinite in space and/or time the conditions necessary for the development of intelligent life will be met only in certain regions that are limited in space and time. The intelligent beings in these regions should therefore not be surprised if they observe that their locality in the universe satisfies the conditions that are necessary for their existence.”.1
There are plenty of scientific hypotheses that explore the ideas of how our universe turned out to have the constants and “laws” it does. As Stephen J. Gould liked to point out; it could be just dumb luck that the universe fell out the way it did leaving us here to comment on it. “Multiverses” have also been proposed. That is, the idea that there is a vast collection of universes with wildly different constants and the universe(s) with constants conducive to life likely lead to life. Then that life is left to wonder if life could exist in the “other universes”. Also, it has been proposed that a much wider range of values than initially though possible can give rise to universes that could support life, albeit life could be vastly different than what we expect.
Collins ideas show that Theism need not contradict subscription to a scientific worldview, but these discussions are not “evidence” that theism is scientifically justifiable. In Chapter 11 he reiterates these arguments and, unfortunately, leaves me with the impression that he considers them “evidence” in science that point to God. Again, this is incorrect and an unfortunate distraction away from what the truly great themes in the book are: namely, that theism is not inherently at odds with a scientific worldview, and that we must reclaim theism from those who attack science.
Even his apologetics sections suffer some blemishes. First, he cites Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ as some “evidence” for belief (page 224). This is amusingly ironic seeing as how Strobel has become somewhat of an Intelligent Design cheerleader. His latest book, The Case for a Creator, is nothing more than an Intelligent Design (ID) springboard into evangelical reading circles. Collins speaks out against ID, fairly clearly, so including Strobel as a positive reference anywhere is not something I would have done.
Next he quotes Josh McDowell starting on page 224 then starts discussing the “Trilemma”. …Oh that’s bad. I really couldn’t believe he enters into that discussion. I guess this is more evidence that no one is perfect, not that that’s surprising. The Trilemma is an appallingly lame argument that has been decimated by atheists for a long time. I know it’s a point where the adroit C.S. Lewis and I part ways. But just because someone is brilliant doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong occasionally. Hey, I disagree with a couple views held by St. Augustine, and I don’t dare compare my cognitive ability to his. For the interested reader I have provided some notes on the Trilemma below.2
Those are my big problems with the book. But what’s left is still golden. In Chapter 4 “Life On Earth” he gives a very good, albeit brief, rundown of the history of scientific knowledge in geology and biology. I wish he could have included more details that would dispel common evangelical misconceptions of natural history, but he wanted to keep the discussion short. A very good summary.
At the bottom of page 148 he gives a great illustration of the universe’s history. If the entire universe’s history was compressed into a 24 hour period, when would certain events occur? The mind picture that results is wonderful. I am disappointed that he did not credit the Nova program “Origins” with this illustration. That was a wonderful show hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It gave this same illustration two years before Collins book came out. I don’t know who the first person to use this illustration was, but “Origins” was the first place I came across it.
He further discusses the shortfalls of atheistic criticism with a quote from a most unexpected ally: Stephen Jay Gould (pages 165-166). Gould, quite correctly, points out that science is silent on the question of God. The scientific world view, therefore, is just as compatible with religion as it is with atheism. I am so disappointed in one aspect of my upbringing (not to criticize my parents). Since I was raised the evangelical community I was taught implicitly that people like Gould were the “enemy” because they supposedly sought to undermine the Bible. But now that I’ve grown up I’ve found the writing of many scientific atheists to be like poetry greater than hymns. Gould, Hawking, Carl Sagan. These are people who understand the beauty and magnificence of life. Just because we disagree on matters of faith does not negate the truth of their insights into the natural world.
I really enjoyed his discussion of Young Earth Creationism starting on page 173. He pulls no punches on those who attack science in the name of God. He doesn’t sugar coat the anti-scientific nature of Young Earth Creationism (YEC) efforts. He rightly points out how damaging YEC is on our young people with budding scientific minds. His words are eloquent:
“Is God honored or dishonored by those who demand ignorance?” Page 176
“YEC has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy, both scientifically and theologically.” Page 177
I was quite surprised, then, when he introduced Intelligent Design (ID) he did so magnanimously with three pages that had me wondering if he really understood what ID was all about. I think he may have worried that people reading his book were more likely to be sympathetic to ID than YEC, so he was trying not to alienate then.
As a result he refers to Michael Behe as “persuasive” on page 184 and discusses the ID canard of the bacterial flagellum on page 185. Behe is persuasive in the same way a lawyer can be. Unless you’re very familiar with the subject matter (and most of his readers aren’t) he hides his fallacious arguments and mental gymnastics behind a nearly impenetrable wall of jargon and obfuscation. Thank God there people, theists and atheists alike, that can use their expertise to clear the air and show the ID writings for what they are: scientifically vacuous exercises. The bacterial flagellum, the poster child of the ID movement, has been addressed. New research is being done on the flagellum all the time. For further discussion please see:
(Please note these are quite lengthy and technical, but they are very good.)
The principles behind Behe’s and William Dembski’s writings on the subject are fundamentally flawed. This has been demonstrated to them time and time again, but they refuse to acknowledge the scientific and logical errors in their material and continue to repeat their flawed arguments more vociferously. If you ever wondered why the scientific community treats the ID movement with contempt, this is why. Rarely will you find a case of such brazen intellectual dishonesty.
Starting on page 187 Collins does begin to point out the shortfalls of ID movement. Collins rightly points out that the ID argument is an “argument from personal incredulity”. But he does not discuss this logical fallacy in detail. This, coupled with the rather benign treatment given to ID earlier, may leave book’s readers holding the ID arguments in higher esteem than Collins himself does. In order to remedy that, see my discussion of this fallacy below.3
On page 194 he let Dembski shoot himself in the foot. After quoting Dembski saying that ID would have no grounds if specified complexity was shown to be illusory, Collins then points out that many such examples of illusory specified complexity exist. I was part of an exercise that demonstrated that very thing here and here.
Here are some sources he quotes that I think sum up the spirit of the book well.
He quotes John Polkinghorne on page 228 to clarify how a purely naturalistc (atheistic) worldview is likely too simplistic.
“The poverty of an objectivistic account is made only too clear when we consider the mystery of music. From a scientific point of view it is nothing but vibrations in the air, impinging on the eardrums and stimulating neural currents in the brain.
How does it come about that this banal sequence of temporal activity has the power to speak to our hearts of an eternal beauty? The whole range of subjective experience, from perceiving a patch of pink, to being enthralled by a performance of the Mass in B Minor, and on to the mystics’ encounter with the ineffable reality of the One, all these experiences are at the center of our encounter with reality, and they are not to be dismissed as epiphenomenal froth on the surface of a universe whose true nature is impersonal and lifeless.”
He quotes Copernicus on page 230 regarding the pursuit of God and the pursuit of scientific knowledge:
“To know the mighty works of God; to comprehend his wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful working of his laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.”
Or in his own words (page 88): “If there truly is a God, how can scientific inquiry be a threat to God?”
There you have it, there are some great things are to be found in this book. Some not-so-great things are to be found as well. That is unfortunate, but it doesn’t negate the good things present. This is why we read and think about content. It takes a little effort, but the rewards are worth it. I’d still recommend this book to those interested in an introduction of the science of evolution or to evangelical-minded folks who don’t agree with mainstream science. This review will hopefully at least help someone avoid the problems found in the book. I hope Dr. Collins continues to write for lay audience because he has an ability to make abstract ideas very accessible and I’d like to see how his views develop over time.
1 – Drs. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, A Briefer History of Time, p130, Bantam Dell, 2005
2 – The Trilemma
The Trilemma is simple. It is stated as a deductive argument. Therefore it is either valid (“true” if you like) or invalid (“false” if you like). It states:
- Jesus said he was God
- There are only three reasons he would do so: he was telling the truth, intentionally lying (evil) or totally insane.
- He teachings promote peace and well-being, therefore he is not evil (or lying).
- He actions are not that of a madman
- Therefore, the only choice left is he was telling the truth, and he was God.
Steps 1 and 2 are called the premises, or assumptions. They must be true assumptions. If either of these are false then the whole argument falls apart. This is easily done.
The first premise can at least be reasonably argued against. While I agree with the premise it certainly can be argued that it is false. A statement like “I and the Father are one” could mean they are one in purpose, not ontologically the same being. Or “if you have seen me, you have seen the Father” could mean that Jesus represented God’s work on Earth, not that he actually was God working.
The second premise is obviously false. There are many other cases, in fact a broad spectrum, of motivations that could lead one to make the claim stated in the first premise. Some one could use such pedagogical language if they though it would garner their followers a better way of life. Jesus could simply have been well intentioned, and convinced, but wrong in the idea that he was sent from God. This is discussed in great deal here.
The point is not that I agree with atheistic criticisms entirely, but that the “Trilemma” is a stupid exercise. It’s formulation into deductive argument is folly. God can’t be boxed in to logic. To try to do so is to beg people smarter than you to prove you wrong. And when it comes to logic, we PROVE. There is no negotiation. If you form an invalid argument you are just, plain wrong. Both premises in the trilemma can be argued as false, therefore the deduction (Jesus was telling the truth) is invalid. We have not demonstrated anything.
Apologists with little imagination engage in a sad effort to prop up this weak line of reasoning. It’s like watching someone trying to resuscitate a corpse; an unfortunate effort that is wasted. Josh McDowell, J.P. Holding and others have tried this by arguing in minutiae and equivocation. They shift continually between complaining that they are not trying to deal in absolutes and deduction, but subtle realities; then they shift back to the absolutes when people poke holes in their subtleties.
Many people who currently use this argument have been taken to task for it. Only those who continue in intellectual dishonesty continue to hold to it once the invalidity is demonstrated to them. I hope Collins is made aware of this issue and changes his opinion.
3 -The Argument From Personal Incredulity
The argument from personal incredulity could be paraphrased as “I can’t understand how that happened in one particular way, therefore it must have happened in this other way”.
An example would be when a magician shows you a slight of hand trick you say “I don’t understand how he did that, therefore he must have done it with supernatural powers”. This is a trite example, but the point is made: if you don’t have the imagination or initiative to figure it out, that doesn’t give you the right to go around saying “He possesses supernatural powers!”.
The slightly less silly argument could be “I saw John Edward say to a lady named Betty that Betty’s dead mother told him Betty’s nickname was “Chipmunk”. And he was right! I can’t understand how he learned that. Therefore, he must actually have talked with Betty’s dead mom’s spirit.” Just because you don’t have the imagination or initiative to figure out how he learned that (hint: cold reading) it doesn’t give you the right to go around saying “John Edward can speak to the dead!” even if he does go around saying it.
When you strip all the nonsense away ID says that “we just can’t see how the natural processes of random mutation and natural selection can lead to the diversity and level of life we see on this planet. Therefore intelligence must have intervened supernaturally at various points in this planet’s natural history”. Well I’m sorry if you just can’t figure it out. Unfortunately for you, there are plenty of scientists out there who are actually figuring it out. The difference between you and them? They’re trying. They actually employ the scientific method.
Back to Book Reviews.